Maine’s rural land use regulators have approved a transmission corridor proposal by Central Maine Power that is opposed by environmentalists and other activists because it would cut through more than 50 miles of wild North Woods.

The state Land Use Planning Commission voted 5-2 Wednesday to certify CMP’s $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect project as an accepted use in the areas it would be built. The commissioners focused on protected recreation areas around the Kennebec Gorge and Appalachian Trail, and CMP’s proposals to buffer the impact of its power line on them.

The power line still awaits a decision from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which is reviewing CMP’s permit application and expects to submit a draft decision within the next month, a spokesman said. The company also needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which said it expects to issue a decision in the next few months.

Opponents who have battled the project for more than two years were disappointed by the commission’s vote, and hope the upcoming environmental review will expose what they believe are the plan’s flaws.

“While I’m disappointed, this isn’t an edict on the whole project, it is just the Appalachian Trail and the Kennebec River,” said Sue Ely, clean energy attorney with the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We still have the Maine Department of Environmental Protection decision before us. That is going to be a much more in-depth and broader look this project has on recreation, scenic areas, wildlife and wetlands.”

Most of the proposed 145-mile transmission line would only require expanding existing power line corridors, but roughly one-third would involve new construction in woodland between the Canadian border and Kennebec River. CMP has said the power line would carry hydroelectric power generated in Canada down to Massachusetts.

A draft report from commission staff last week said the project met all applicable land regulations, and CMP agreed to buffer protection areas from the project’s worst impact.

One of the dissenting commissioners, Bill Gilmore, from Franklin County, said he understood the panel had to vote on the legality of the project, but said that he believed CMP could have selected a less intrusive and cheaper corridor route.

Allowing a company to cut through the biggest swath of wilderness east of the Mississippi River would set a bad precedent for future development in the North Woods, Gilmore said.

“Every time we fragment that, we run the risk of what is the next guy who is at the steps of the front door going to ask for?” he said.

James May, a commissioner from Mapleton, said he felt uneasy certifying the project, but voted for it because it satisfied state standards.

“This decision has to be made based on statute and regulations we are working under,” May said. “If I was to vote strictly on my emotions, I might not be so in favor of this.”

CMP agreed to drill under the Kennebec River to avoid running power lines over the scenic gorge popular with whitewater rafters. The power line near the Appalachian Trail would be built within an expansion of the existing corridor, but the company would buffer it with brush at least 10 feet tall.

Commission staff said the power company demonstrated that putting the line underground near the trail was impractical because of the environmental impact and cost.

The panel deadlocked on a certification vote for the project four months ago because of concerns about the impact to a protected area around Beattie Pond, a remote body of water near the Canadian border.

Shortly thereafter, CMP bought the rights to a strip of land south of the pond that the company previously had said was too expensive to be a viable option, thus skirting the protected area. The power line is an allowed use within the mile-long alternate route.

An official at Avangrid, CMP’s parent company, said in a prepared statement that the commission vote recognized the company’s power line project was well-designed and sited to meet all land use standards.

“(The proposed corridor) is vital to Maine’s future both environmentally and economically, and we look forward to obtaining other necessary federal, state and municipal approvals and beginning construction of the clean energy corridor later this year,” said Thorn Dickinson, Avangrid’s vice president of business development.

An endorsement from the LUPC, which oversees land use regulations in Maine’s unorganized townships and other remote areas, was among the remaining approvals required by CMP to build the transmission corridor.

Last spring, the Maine Public Utilities Commission certified the project as beneficial to the state economy and electrical grid reliability.

Central Maine Power says the project will provide Maine jobs and cheaper power and has offered Maine $258 million to reduce power bills, improve broadband internet and expand efficient home heating and electric vehicle chargers.

Ed Buzzell, a property owner in Moxie Gore, near the proposed power line, was disappointed with Wednesday’s vote, but said he was heartened that two commissioners voted against the project.

“I’m glad it wasn’t a unanimous decision – that means there is some question about it within the commission,” Buzzell said.

He looks forward to the state’s environmental review and also hopes for a successful petition to put the power line in front of Maine voters via a referendum. A group called No CMP Corridor is collecting petition signatures but would not disclose how many they had received as of Wednesday.

“I think it will be good for the people of Maine to make this decision instead of a group of unelected officials,” Buzzell said.

CMP hopes to begin construction on the corridor this spring and complete it in 2022, according to a recent presentation of Avangrid’s third-quarter financial results.

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